Clint Eastwood’s Persona, Phallic Imagery, and the Questioning of Male Authority in the Film Joe Kidd, a Revisionist Western

22 Apr
Eastwood drives a phallic train off the rails and into a saloon

Eastwood drives a phallic train off the rails and into a saloon

Robert Duvall holds a big gun

Robert Duvall holds a big gun

Phallic locomotive driven by Eastwood crashes into the interior of the town's saloon

Phallic locomotive driven by Eastwood crashes into the interior of the town’s saloon

Big guns in a manly world

Big guns in a manly world

Wienie-top rock?

Wienie-top rock?

Relaxing with a gun which is ready to go

Relaxing with a gun which is ready to go

While filming Joe Kidd (1972) at the Tucson Studios and at other locations, Clint Eastwood, who plays his classic tough-guy Wild-West character (in this case named Joe Kidd), was, in real life, having panic attacks. A panic attack is characterized by a sense of overwhelming fear with no apparent cause. Its onset is sudden and one may feel an accelerated heart rate, a sense of dread for no reason, and perhaps a fear of death.

That Eastwood was having anxiety/panic attacks is ironic because his film persona is that of a guy who remains calm even in life-threatening situations. But of course he is only playing a role and his character is a fantasy, an ideal. Action films turn him into someone who behaves the way we wish we could in real life — never afraid, always calm and able to maintain some measure of control, even if only over one’s own emotions. His film persona was almost always Mr. Cool, but Clint Eastwood, while making this film, was gripped with fear over something he couldn’t quite identify. Perhaps he knew at some deep level that the film deconstructed and questioned a patriarchal authority that he secretly longed to affirm, whether through his conservative political views or in his personal relationships with women.

Early in the film we learn that his character is as confident with women as he is when confronted by wild-eyed psycho killer gunmen, mean Mexicans, and bullying cops. The big-shot landowner, played by Robert Duvalll, has a mistress, a blonde who has a resemblance to Eastwood’s longtime lady pal Sandra Locke. While waiting for a meeting with Duvall in which Duvall’s character is going to ask Joe Kidd to help hunt down a rebel Mexican, Eastwood sidles up to the blonde in her room next to Duvall’s and plants a kiss on her lips after he has questioned her as to whether she’s Duvall’s wife or acting in some other role. After establishing that she’s basically Duvall’s character’s sexual companion, and presumably her services are available to the highest bidder or the most confident and groovy male (even if he has just gotten out of jail on a drunk charge and threatening to pee on the courthouse) he goes in for a tender kiss. She asks how long he was in jail. He says, “Two days.” She asks what he’d act like if it had been two months. He says, “We wouldn’t even be talking.”

So ole Joe Kidd is quite a stud, a powerhouse of libidinal energy, who, when horny enough, cuts the fancy preliminaries in favor of fervent action. You never saw a character played by John Wayne move in on another man’s gal and start making out with her. He’d engage in some slightly awkward courting and maybe take the lady on a buggy ride to a hillside for a picnic. He was civilized — except in male-male combat. Then he could become somewhat of a savage, but that was okay since he was killing “bad” guys. Eastwood/Kidd skips all the formalities, pulls the blonde’s stocking out of her suitcase to reveal that she’s into dressing in sexy ways, and then proceeds to move in for a kiss.

The film is one of many 1960s revisionist westerns in which no one is really very good, even the fringe types like Eastwood who are cynical about the ways of the white man and his hierarchies of power which often turn out to be corrupt. It was being recognized throughout our culture at that time that the whole process of stealing the West from the Native Americans was a dirty, morally untenable process (unless one believes that might makes right and bullying and genocide and dirty tricks are a good thing). It was also being recognized that even the “good” types like farmers who underwent great hardship to homestead in remote areas, would be swindled and cheated and possibly killed by other white men who had money and power and, say, wanted to build a railroad right where a homesteader had a farm.

In Joe Kidd we are we supposed to feel good about the “people” rising up. In this case the “people” are relatively disenfranchised Mexicans in places like New Mexico who are fighting to get back the land that the King of Spain had granted them, but which the rapacious Americans took from them by various devious means. Sure, the Mexicans were badly treated, but seen from a 1960s revisionist perspective, they aren’t really any better than the white guys. They were just another group of Europeans who stole lands from the Native Americans, only they were Spanish. And they tended to intermarry with the indigenous people rather than just kill them all.

Whether marrying or mating with Native Americans or moving in on blonde mistresses, clearly the Wild-West male was a horny and very manly type of guy, high in testosterone. The wimps stayed behind in Europe arguing philosophy, fashion, politics, and critiquing the quality of croissants in a cafe while rugged males went off to strange lands to build empires, colonize, cultivate, and create a new Eden.

And, in this new Eden, the macho male happily bit the apple without having an anxiety attack. Perhaps unconsciously, the director, John Sturges, loaded up the film with sexual imagery to show just how manly the Western man was. The film contains lots of phallic images. If he was still alive and could be asked about this element of this film, he might well deny or dismiss it. I don’t know his work well, but I imagine that he wasn’t driven by psychological theories as much as by a need to get the film made fast and make it entertaining, with plenty of sex and violence. Or just violence if sex was ruled out by the Hayes code.

Sturges made many B-movies and some great A-movies like The Magnificent Seven (based on Akira Kurasowa’s Seven Samurai). What’s unique about this film, and seems particularly evident to me, is the conscious or unconscious phallic symbolism in the film. It’s almost a caricature, but I don’t think he meant it that way. Or did he?

After Eastwood leaves the blonde floozie and rides off into a rugged landscape on his horse, we see repeated images of phallic rocks that are foregrounded. Later, when the bad guys take over a small town, we repeatedly see dramatic shots of phallic guns held high by gunmen silhouetted against the sky.

And, when we reach the “climax” of the film, it’s all about a huge phallus (a train) ramming into and through a place traditionally known as one of carnal pleasure and carnivalesque fun. We see Eastwood attempting to bring the rebel Mexican to jail in the small town where all the action started, but the bad guys are waiting for him, ready to kill him and the rebel. To reach a safe haven from which to shoot it out with the bad guys who are in sniper positions on the roofs of buildings, Eastwood drives a locomotive and a few attached railroad cars right off the rails and crashes it into the town’s bar with a thrust of phallic energy.

The shootout leads to some bad guys being shot and some surrendering and the big shot bad guy played by Duvall being shot by Eastwood. At this point apparently he figures there will be no justice, no restoration of a fair social order. At the very end, out on the street, he says to the Mexican rebel, “Good luck” and the rebel walks away. Good luck with what? His peasant rebellion? Or is he supposed to be walking to the jail to turn himself to away trial? Not likely. If he is turning himself in to the sheriff, why does the sheriff appear beside Eastwood and ask what he can do just after the rebel has walked away? Eastwood’s response is to punch the sheriff and warn him that next time it will be worse. Since he’s the guy running the jail, shouldn’t he be going to take the rebel to jail?

For the final, ride-into-the-sunset shot with a male and female united (which implies the re-establishing social stability and order), Eastwood does not go back to the hotel to the blonde floozie/mistress/prostitute female who is presumably still in her fancy room waiting in a sexy outfit for bad-guy head honcho Duvall to return or Eastwood to return as he promised he would as soon as Duvall was out of the picture (on a “hunting” trip). Instead, now Eastwood/Kidd has become enamored of a more suitable mate for an independent thinker like himself — a sexy rebel Mexican woman named Helen Sanchez who has been in on a lot of the action in the film and is both feminine and can cook but also is masculinized in that she can handle a gun and knife in combat. The two of them ride off together past the giant powerful phallus of the locomotive which is sticking out of the side of the bar as several men stand and look at it and scratch their heads and wonder at this amazing spectacle of male energy and power caused by Joe Kidd’s final violent thrust for social order and justice.

This film was made during a time of revising the old ideas about the American West and the entire Western genre. Maybe at this stage in his career, Sturges was spoofing machismo and the Western to some extent, overplaying the phallic imagery on purpose. It would’ve been in keeping with the spirit of the times. And it did provide a visually dramatic ending for the film. It’s a lot more fun than, say, having Kidd have an anxiety attack just as he’s riding into town, but that too would fit in with the spirit of the revisionist western.


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